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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849?)


One of the greatest Hungarian poets, who became the voice of rebellious youth of his country. Like Byron, Sándor Petőfi believed in the Romantic idea of an artist as freedom fighter, and his death created a legend and mystery. Petőfi's prolific career ended at the age of 26. In the six years 1844-49 he published 10 volumes of poems. Of himself he once said: "I am but in good and evil an essence of the national character."

Rise up, Magyar, the country calls!
It's 'now or never' what fate befalls...
Shall we live as slaves or free men?
That's the question - choose your 'Amen'!
God of Hungarians,
we swear unto Thee,
We swear unto Thee - that slaves we shall
no longer be!
(in 'Talpra, magyar!', translated by Adam Makkai)

Sándor Petőfi was born in Kiskőrös, 110 km south of Budapest. His father, István (Stephanus) Petrovics, was a village butcher, innkeeper, and a Serb, whose family had assimilated with the majority population. Mária Hrúz, Petőfi 's mother, was a Slovak, whose knowledge of the Hungarian language was not especially good. However, the family used Hungarian at home. Before marriage Mária Hrúz had worked as a servant. Petőfi said once of his mother that, "She was full of poetry, I drank it in the milk of her bosom; I learnt it from her smiles and tears."

His early years Petőfi spent in Félegyháza. Due to István's wanderlust and unlucky enterprises, the family  moved constantly from place to place. Petőfi received his early education in different schools without showing any evidence of special talent. When the overflowing of the Danube destroyed the little property of the family, they fell into poverty.

His first poems Petőfi  penned at the age of twelve. Before making his breakthrough as a writer, Petőfi led a wandering life, and did not later on have much desire for bourgeois respectability and comfort. While studying in Selmecz he became seriously interested in theater, but his father, who had lost his property in a flood, did not support his son's new career plans.

Against the wishes of his family, Petőfi joined a troop of strolling players. He worked at the National Theater in Pest, spent some time in the country, and served in the Austrian army as a common soldier in Sopron, Graz, Zagreb, and other places. During this period he learned German and read the works of Heine, but he also taught himself French in order to read Hugo, Béranger, and Lamartine. In the 1840s he adopted the name Petőfi, the Hungarian form of the name Petrovic.

Petőfi remained in Croatia for nearly two years. After falling ill, he was discharged in 1841. Petőfi tried to continue his studies at the Calvinist college of Pápa, but soon he quarrelled with his teachers. He then worked as an actor without much recognition, copied parliamentary documents in Pozsony, lived in poverty in Debrecen, and made some translations from English and French. From northern Hungary he returned on foot to Pest, in a ragged condition, settling in a cottage of a widow outside the town.

'A borozó' (1842, The Wine-bibber), Petőfi's first published poem, was a humorous drinking song, which appeared in a distinguished literary journal, Athenaeum, edited by Mihály Vörösmarty, József Bajza, and Ferenc Toldy. Petőfi did not hesitate to use colloquial language, which led to accusations of vulgarity, and to another misunderstanding – that he liked wine. In 'Apám mestersége s az enyém' he found similarities with his work as a poet and his father's work as a butcher – Petőfi's father hits with his axe and the poet with his pen. At that time Petőfi had abandoned his dreams to pursue a career as a stage actor.

In 1844 Petőfi was employed as an assistant editor of the literary periodical Pesti Divatlap, but in the spring of 1845 he resigned and lived on income from his writings. Petőfi's first collection Versek (1844) was published with the help of Mihály Vörösmarty (1800-55), an older writer. It made him immediately famous. At the end of 1844 Petőfi wrote János vitéz (John the Valiant). Also this book, which  came out in the following year, gained considerable acclaim, but at the same time puzzled readers and critics alike: was it a supernatural fairytale, a parody of heroic poetry, and did Petőfi made fun of hussars: "All the same, though, the Magyars by nature are tough, / Whatever the chill, they were hardy enough; / And they thought of this trick: when it got a bit colder, / Each dismounted and carried his horse on his shoulder".  (John the Valiant, translated by John Ridland, 1999) 

Fame and popularity earned Petőfi some financial security, and he also could support his parents. He lived in Pest, frequented Café Piövax, but contined his travels around the country as a celebrated figure. Heine wrote of Petöfi, that his "rustic song was sweeter that that of the nightingale." In 1847 he married Júlia Szendrey; they had one son. Júlia's father, who belonged to the nobility and worked as a civil servant, had resisted the marriage. In one of Petőfi's best-known love poems a young husband asks his wife: "Tell me, if I die first, will you shed tears / and cover up my body with a shroud?"  Júlia did not mourn for her husband too long in real life. Less than a year after Petőfi's disappearance she married Árpád Horváth, a heraldist; they had four children.

Petőfi was a devoted advocate of freedom and self-determination of Hungary. He once said: "Liberty, love! These two I need. For my love I will sacrifice life, for liberty I will sacrifice my love." The national importance of 'Talpra, magyar', which Petőfi wrote on the eve of the revolution of 1848, can be compared to 'La Marsellaise'. It inspired young revolutionaries, and was sung everywhere. Under the influence of the motto of the French Revolution "Egyenlőség, szabadság, testvériség!",  Petőfi composed in March 1848 with Pál Vasvár and others the celebrated 12 national requisitions, demanding freedom of the press and release of political prisoners. Lajos Kossuth,  the leader of the  liberals, proclaimed Hungary's independence from Habsburg rule.

Although Petőfi was a great agitator he had no experience in politics, and he was not elected to the new parliament. He quarrelled with Kossuth and had strained relationships with influential government members, which affected his military career. Eventually Austria suppressed the revolt with Russian help. During the 1848-49 War of Independence Petőfi served as the aide-de-camp of the famous Polish General, Jozef Bem. Petőfi disappeared during the Battle of Segesvár, on July 31, 1849 – Bem had told him not to join the battle. Petőfi's body was never found; possibly he was trampled to death in the confusion which followed the retreat of the Magyar army.

According to another story, a white-shirted figure, thought to be the poet, stood against the charging Cossacks with a sword, and collapsed after having been pierced by a lance. Gyula Illyés mentions in his biography of Petőfi the widespread legend that the poet was buried alive on the battlefield. By his countrymen he was said to be "not dead, but sleeping." There is a story too, which tells that he married the daughter of a Siberian postal clerk, lived a peaceful life, and wrote poetry under the name "Alexander Petrovich". (The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat by Paul Lendvai, 2004, p. 220)

Soviet researchers suggested in the late 1980s that he was taken as a prisoner of war to Siberia, where he died of tuberculosis in 1856. An expedition found in 1989 in the cemetery of  Barguzin, Siberia a skeleton, whose characterisrics, after measurements and computer analysis, allegedly matched those of Petőfi. Moreover, from the upper jaw of the skull stood out an unsusually large cuspid – some sources mention the poet's "vampire tooth" in his upper jaw. An anthropologist declared that "the probability is six trillion to one" that the identified remains are those of the national poet.  (Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-communism by István Rév, 2005, pp. 20-21) The Barguzin skeleton was reburied in Budapest in 2015. Before this experts had come to the conclusion that the skeleton was actually female, that of a pregnant woman.  (The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat by Paul Lendvai, 2004, p. 220-221)  

Szabadság, szerelem!
E ketto kell nekem.
Szerelmemért föláldozom
Az életet,
Szabadságért föláldozom


Petőfi returned to the unpretentious style of folk poetry and folk songs. His poems were clear, realistic, vigorous, and had humor. Ordinary people – students, shepherds, poor musicians, vagabonds, tavern-keepers – were his characters. Petőfi's attacks on monarchism in such poems as 'A királyokhoz' and 'Akasszátok föl a királyokat' caused a scandal. In János vitéz, which consisted of 1480 lines divided into 27 cantos, the hero Kukoricza Jancsi is a foundling, who works as a shepherd and is mistreated by his foster father. His beloved, Iluska, is also an orphan. Jancsi loses half of his herd, and is chased away from the farm. He bids Iluska farewell, joins the hussars, experiences a number of adventures, and saves a princess. The king of France promises his daughter and crown to Jancsi, who now becomes János vitéz, a knight, but the hero says he loves only Iluska. János returns to his home village and hears that Iluska has died of sorrow. From her grave he takes a rose, and broods over his fate. He travels into a fairy-tale land of giants and is crowned their king. Finally János and Iluska are joined when she is reborn from the rose as a elf. Petőfi seems to say that a true hero is only faithful to his own heart, and he chooses poverty rather than the temptations of wealth and power. As often in fairy tales, life continues in János vitéz miraculously after death; this fantasy fulfills János' vision of Eden.

Petőfi's friendship with the novelist Mór Jokai (1825-1904) and the poet János Arany (1817-82) was important for his development as a writer. With Arany he discussed in letters the program of the new literary movement. In 'Egy gondolat bánt engement' (1846) Petőfi imagined himself falling in battle "for the Truth – the Freedom of the World!" instead of dying peacefully at home. "I'm troubled by one thought – to die / in bed, among pillows stacked high; / to wilt and wither, flower-like, beneath, / as if chewed by some secret vermin's teeth..." Az Apostol (1848, The Apostle) was about a radical teacher, who is imprisoned for his thoughts. Freedom was for Petőfi not only an uplifting subject but a highly personal matter. It meant the victory of the individual over his surroundings, and his political activism partly manifested his role as the interpreter of inner feelings of people, and his struggle for freedom of expression.

Though national and ideological motifs were deeply embedded in Petőfi's work, he wrote more about love than battles and revolution. In Cipruslombok Etelke sírjáról (1845, Cypress Leaves) he expressed his sorrow at the death of Etelka Csapó, his secret beloved. For Berta Mednyánszky he wrote 40 poems in Szerelem gyöngyei. During the revolution Petőfi also composed poems depicting family life – after marriage his love poems were devoted to his wife. His translations include such works as Schiller's poem 'Ideal,' Alexandre Dumas' short story 'Masked Ball,' George James' novel Robin Hood, Shakespeare's Corolianus and a portion of Romeo and Juliet, and Seneca's 'Third Letter' from the Latin.

For further reading: Petőfi: Petőfi Sándor regényes életrajza by Berényi Anna (2022); Petőfi Sándor emlékezete, szerkesztette Margócsy István (2022) National Poets, Cultural Saints: Canonization and Commemorative Cults of Writers in Europe by Marijan Dović and Jón Karl Helgason (2017); 'Petőfi: Self-Fashioning, Consecration, Dismantling' by John Neubauer, in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Volume V: Types and Stereotypes, edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer (2004); 'Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849)' by Hannu Launonen, in Runoja by Sándor Petőfi, suomentanut Otto Manninen (2001); Sándor Petőfi by István Margócsy (1999); Petőfi és kora: 1842-1849 / írta by Kerényi Ferenc (1990); 'Petőfi - the Irish Connection' by George Gömöri, in A Journey into History: Essays on Hungarian Literature, edited by Moses M. Nagy (1990); The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature by Lórant Czigány (1984); A History of Hungarian Literature by István Nemeskürty, László Orosz et. al. (1983); Sandor Petofi by Eniko M. Basa (1980); Petőfi és a nacionalizmus: (hat el¨ oadás) by Pándi Pál (1974); Petőfi Sándor életrajza I. A Költo guermek- és ifjúkora by Sándor Fekete (1973); Petofi by Anton N. Nyerges (1973); Petőfi nyomában by Békés István (1959); Sándor Petőfi by Gyula Illyés (1936); Petöfi: Počte de la Liberte by Z. Ferenczi (1912); Petőfi életrajza, Vols. 1-3, by Zoltán Ferenczi (1896); Petöfis Leben und Werke by A. Fischer (1888) - See also: Statue of Poet Sándor Petőfi - Suomennoksia: Weriviholliset, suom. -Nm [Herman Niemi] (1879); Aleksanteri Petöfin runoja, koonnut Severi [Nuormaa] (1892); Papurikko ja Valakka. Ukkovaari, suom. Meri Sulju (1909); Runoja I-II, suom. Otto Manninen (1922-23); János sankari, suom. Otto Manninen (1926); Petöfiä suomeksi, toim. by Aulis J. Joki & Hannu Launonen & László Keresztes (1974); Runoja, suom. Otto Manninen, Hannu Launonen (2001)

Selected works:

  • A koros hölgy, 1843
  • Versek, 1844
  • A helység kalapácsa, 1844
  • Cipruslombok Etelke sírjáról, 1845 - Cypress Leaves (translated by Sir John Bowring, in Translation from Alexander Petőfi, the Magyar Poet, 1866) /  Cypress Leaves from the Grave of Dear Ethel (translated by William N. Loew, 1912)
  • János Vitéz, 1845 - John the Hero (translated by Ferenc Pulszky, in Tales and Traditions of Hungary, 1851) / János, the Hero (translated by Sir John Bowring, in Translation from Alexander Petőfi, the Magyar Poet, 1866) / Childe John (translated by William N. Loew, 1912) / John the Valiant (bilingual ed., translated by John Ridland, 1999)
  • Szerelem gyöngyei, 1845
  • Versek II, 1845
  • Úti jegyzetek, 1845
  • A hóhér kötele, 1846
  • Felhök, 1846
  • Versei, 1846
  • Tigris és hiéna, 1847 (play)
  • Összes költeményei, 1847
  • Bolond Istók, 1847
  • Nemzeti dal, 1848
  • Az apostol, 1848 - The Apostle (translated by William N. Loew, 1912; Victor Clement, 1961; Joan Neininger, 2007)
  • Újabb Költeményei, 1847-1849, 1851
  • Vegyes muvei 1838-1849, 1863 (3 vols., ed. Pal Gyulai)
  • Translation from Alexander Petőfi, the Magyar Poet, 1866 (translated by Sir John Bowring)
  • Selections from the Poems of Alexander Petőfi, 1885  (translated by Henry Phillips, Jr.)
  • Összes muvei, 1892-96 (6 vols., ed. Adolf Havas)
  • Sixty Poems, 1948 (translated by Eugénie Bayard Pierce and Emil Delmár, introd. by Joseph Reményi)
  • Összes muvei, 1951-64 (7 vols.)
  • Összes muvei, 1955 (3 vols., ed. Pal Pandi)
  • Összes prozai muvei es levelezese, 1960 (ed. Pal Pandi)
  • Sándor Petőfi: His Entire Poetic Works, 1972 (translated by Frank Szomy)
  • Összes muvei, 1973 (ed. Jozsef Kiss)
  • Petőfi, 1973 (ed. Joseph M. Értavy-Baráth)
  • Sándor Petőfi by Himself, 1973 (selected by György Radó)
  • Rebel or Revolutionary?: Sándor Petőfi as Revealed by His Diary, Letters, Notes, Pamphlets, and Poems, 1974 (translated by Edwin Morgan et al.)
  • Nemzeti dal = National-Lied: vorgetragen am 15. März 1848, 1969 (mit einem Essay von Zsuzsanna Gahse)
  • John the Valiant, 1999 (János vitéz; translated into English by John Ridland)
  • János vitéz; Az apostol, 2000 (az utószót írta és a szöveget gondozta, Kerényi Ferenc)
  • Petőfi Sándor összes költeményei: (1847): kritikai kiadás, 2008 (sajtó alá rendezte Kerényi Ferenc)
  • Dalaim; anthológia Petöfi Sándor legszebb költeményeiböl, 2022

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